As of this writing it’s been almost nine months since I’ve been in a movie theater. I make no speculations for the future of public movie-going. It’s been a rough summer and I’m in “wait and see” mode on just about everything.
In the meantime, streaming services are sure making an effort to keep us from being bored, aren’t they? There’s a whole lot to see on TV, and I’m fascinated by the viral mode of viewing where suddenly everybody on social media talks furiously about the same movie or show for a couple of days, and so we all watch it, and it’s somehow even bigger and more communal than going to movies ever was. And then just as suddenly—silence, until the next thing comes along.
Directed by Harry Bradbeer
Produced by Netflix, Legendary Entertainment, PCMA Productions
September 23, 2020
The thing that went viral as I was putting this together was Enola Holmes, a film released on Netflix, based on books by Nancy Springer, about Sherlock Holmes’s younger sister. Sherlock Holmes is generally widely embraced by science fiction and fantasy readers, despite not technically, originally, being science fiction or fantasy (high-tech steampunk versions and fantasy retellings aside). I think this is because of these stories’ focus on competence, cleverness, and the admiration of intelligence. This feeling that Holmes would be one of us if he’d been born a hundred years later. (Never mind that he’s fictional.)
I’ve only just now realized that in the last dozen years or so we’ve have a bunch of Sherlock Holmeses: the Robert Downy Jr. films, BBC’s Sherlock, Elementary on CBS, the Will Ferrell and John C. Riley film Holmes and Watson, Ian McKellen in the film Mr. Holmes. That’s a lot of Holmes. We haven’t even had that many wide-release Robin Hood versions in that time.
Some of these try to put a spin on it—Sherlock in the modern era, Sherlock as an old man. Enola Holmes tells the story from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, played by Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame. Enola has been living in isolation with her genius suffragette mother since her father died and her two older brothers left home, never to return. Then, one day, her mother mysteriously vanishes. Enola needs to find her. Her brothers aren’t much help—Mycroft rather viciously vows to ship her off to a ladies’ finishing school. So Enola dresses as a boy and runs away to London to search for her mother herself, and has adventures along the way.
Enola is a great character, and the setting and energy of the film are vibrant. The plot . . . well. It doesn’t quite come together. The film is trope-driven rather than plot-driven, by which I mean the story beats are there, but there’s not much connecting them. There isn’t a single central mystery to solve. To say the plot is scattered is something the film itself knows—Enola literally stops in the middle to announce to the audience that she’s changing her goal from finding her mother to saving missing young aristocrat Lord Tewkesbury. It might have made for a stronger movie if these two mysteries had somehow converged in an even bigger crisis, but they don’t. A bit of writing advice: If your characters, while racing toward the climactic confrontation, declare, “This is a really bad idea full of danger and we shouldn’t be doing it,” and then spend the next minute or so justifying their actions to each other—the audience, actually—your plot is perhaps not hanging together well.
As I mentioned, the attraction of Sherlock Holmes is usually competence porn: watching clever people be excessively clever. Here, no one really gets to be clever and there’s not much to solve. There’s a few anagrams to figure out and some language of flowers clues scattered about, but for the most part the characters slide toward inevitable conclusions with little effort. Enola’s overriding quest is to find her mother. She does not find her mother—her mother simply appears, revealing herself at the end. It’s a nice emotional moment, but from a story perspective, rather empty.
I have a lunatic suggestion and you’ll have to trust me on this. So, this is not Millie Bobby Brown’s first feature film. This is not even Brown’s first feature film in which she plays a teen girl having to confront that fact that her mother might actually be a supervillain. That movie would be Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Which I loved, and which I think is a better “teen girl has to figure out what to do about her mother possibly being a supervillain” movie than Enola Holmes.
NASA as Entertainment
For All Mankind
Created by Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi, Matt Wolpert
Produced by Sony Pictures Television, Tall Ship Productions
November 1, 2019
Initially, I had intended on reviewing Away, a new Netflix series about the first crewed mission to Mars starring Hillary Swank. But I only made it ten minutes into the second episode. I found it emotionally manipulative and it hit one of my biggest pet peeves in very near-future spaceflight/NASA-centric stories, which is depicting astronauts who are deeply, fatally unprofessional. It makes for high drama, but the drama is clearly fake and these are clearly actors playing astronauts. It’s like the Discovery Channel mockumentaries where you know it’s fake because the so-called scientists they interview are just so gosh-darned pretty and don’t use their hands when they talk. I just couldn’t fight my way through the melodrama.
As a palate cleanser, I hopped over to For All Mankind, a 2019 show that aired on Apple TV. This one blew me away. It’s another NASA show, but this one gets to cheat by leaning on all the familiar tropes and imagery of the 1960s Apollo program, which we’ve seen dozens of times. It’s comforting, right? Except I didn’t precisely know what this was about when I started. The first episode begins with very familiar scenes of people glued to their televisions, watching a figure descend the ladder of the lunar module, about to be the first person to step on the moon. But something’s wrong—the date, for one. It’s June 1969, not July. And everyone looks grim. Unhappy. No eager shining eyes here. Rather, there is despair. What’s going on? Well, the figure steps down and speaks the first words—they’re in Russian. The Soviet Union got to the moon first, and the American audience is devastated.
The alternate history spins out from there, and it’s impressive: The space race doesn’t end. In the emergency of dealing with how the Soviets got the jump on NASA, Ted Kennedy cancels his trip to Chappaquiddick, which means no scandal, which means he beats Nixon in the ’72 election, which means Nixon never has to resign because of Watergate . . . and so on. The show extrapolates profound ripples we might not have expected. So what happens next? I’m particularly impressed by how the show deploys that familiar imagery, the depiction of vintage ’60s NASA that we know so well from films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13—and uses it to upend our expectations. Because this is that setting, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Apollo 11 launches a month later . . . and it might fail. It’s extraordinary.
You’d think “the Soviets get to the moon first” ushers in a grim alternate future . . . but it doesn’t. The second Soviet landing includes a woman cosmonaut—another first for the scoreboard, mirroring the space flight of Valentina Tereshkova. So NASA decides to re-activate the Mercury 13, bringing women into the astronaut corps ten years earlier than in the actual timeline, and this class of astronauts includes an African American woman—“to get a jump on this one,” one of the administrators observes wryly. Suddenly, we’re getting a different history of the space program, the way it maybe should have gone. I found it profound, and emotionally wrenching.
I’m not sure if this is getting a second season, but a teaser hints that if it does, it’ll be jumping forward in time, to the ’80s. I would love to see this.
I know it’s yet another streaming service to subscribe to, but here’s an idea: Apple TV is going to be showing Foundation, a series based on the Isaac Asimov books, sometime next year. Wait for that to drop, sign up for a free trial some week when you have time to spare, watch Foundation, and binge the heck out of For All Mankind on the side.
Spread the word!